Guide to UK teacher recruitment and retention

With UK teacher numbers last year at their lowest level since 2013 and DfE data showing that 32% of new teachers leave the profession after only five years, what can independent schools do to compete with the state schools and recruit the best staff available? Nicky Adams offers some insight

“A school is no better than the quality of its teachers,” reminds Shaun Fenton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, but how do schools attract and retain the best teaching staff at a time when teacher numbers are falling?

Such is the dilemma that the DfE took the unprecedented step earlier this year of publishing a ‘Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy’ for state schools, an undertaking to simplify ways into teaching for people considering it or moving across from other careers, to create more supportive school cultures, reduce teachers’ workloads and provide better support for new teachers to ensure that teaching remains an attractive career option and not a last resort.

“Appointing high-quality teachers is a challenge for both state and independent schools, but we do have some advantages in the independent sector that make our schools attractive places to work,” says Shaun Fenton.

“Many of our schools attract great teachers because, for example, we can often offer slightly higher salaries, a wider range of courses, smaller class sizes, more and better resourcing, bigger professional development budgets, more time for planning and pastoral care, a range of extracurricular opportunities and, of course, longer holidays.”

Despite the attractions, independent school staff rooms are feeling the pinch in several areas. “Good maths and science graduates can still earn far higher salaries in other professions, which has caused a shortage of teachers in these subjects in particular,” explains Andrew Morris, assistant general secretary, employment and bargaining for the National Education Union (NEU).

“Modern languages have been adversely affected by Brexit – the perception that the UK is less welcoming to foreigners has already had an impact on the recruitment of language teachers and teaching assistants. Some of our school union reps have reported problems finding suitable candidates for teaching diploma and middle years IB, due to the lack of suitably trained candidates.”

Given the dearth of good teachers in the job market, there is stiff competition between schools – state and independent – for the best available talent, so recruiting new members of staff has become something of an artform

UK teacher recruitment
There is stiff competition between schools for the best teachers

The job description

Given the dearth of good teachers in the job market, there is stiff competition between schools – state and independent – for the best available talent, so recruiting new members of staff has become something of an artform.

“Every teaching job advertisement must start by selling the benefits of the job and the school in order to compete for the best talent,” says Paul Howells, chief executive officer of the education-only job website eTeach.

“It’s also important to include a job description of realistic duties and expectations and the salary range, because in our experience this results in a 20% increase in applications. It doesn’t have to be too specific – UPS/MPS shows you’ll consider all levels.”

While school job ads are typically published in the national and local press as well as the specialist education journals and magazines, teachers enjoy flicking through in the staff room at breaktimes; online advertising for teaching posts has grown exponentially in recent years. In fact, eTeach estimates that there are more than 10,000 UK school job ads on the web at any one time.

“Jobseeking online has become the norm for most careers now,” says Howells. “For schools, advertising teaching jobs online is incredibly good value and increasingly so, as ads are spread organically on jobsites and can also be shared on the recruiter’s or the school’s and even the parents’ social media channels, which typically doubles the number of views.”

Howells also recommends creating a year-round careers web page, hosted by a recruitment website, or alternatively on the school’s own website, for more in-depth information about working at the school.

“Pack it with staff testimonials and all the benefits,” he suggests, “and reassure applicants on important issues such as pupil behaviour, staff workload and quality of leadership. Because teaching job application forms take so long to complete – typically two hours each – jobseekers will cherry-pick which to apply to, based on what they can find out about the school online.”

UK teacher recruitment
The most forward-thinking schools use a talent pool

Talent pool

Certainly, recruiting new staff can be quite a time-consuming and costly rigmarole – one which many schools are keen to keep to a minimum – so it pays to plan ahead by developing a pool of teaching talent to draw from when vacancies arise, rather than responding with a knee-jerk reaction to individual departures.

“The most forward-thinking schools advertise proactively to attract candidates year-round into a talent pool,” says Howells. “This allows schools to link up with potentially suitable applicants well in advance of vacancies arising, a strategy that routinely halves their annual recruitment costs by drastically reducing their dependence on agencies and unexpected supply costs.”

Taking an active role in teacher training can also help to line up talent for the future. St Benedict’s School in Ealing, for example, is a strategic partner school in the West London Teaching School Alliance, a group of 60 schools who between them train 160 primary and secondary teachers through the School Direct programme every year.

“We believe every school has a responsibility to play its part in developing and training the next generation of teachers,” says St Benedict’s headmaster Andrew Johnson. “In our first year in the scheme we have trained five teachers, with a similar number of trainees ready to start this autumn. Clearly, this puts us at an advantage when recruiting new staff, as the newly trained teachers are aware of our school, our ethos and what we offer. Sometimes, where we have a vacancy, we are able to offer jobs to the new teachers we have trained.”

Online application

Having attracted potential candidates, the key is to ensure they go the distance and complete the application. 

“Around 70% of job seeking activity on is via mobile screen now,” adds Howells, “and we find that digital application forms optimised to be completed on mobile devices receive typically twice as many applications per advert. Jobseekers often drop out of the application process if expected to move from the smartphone or tablet he or she may be browsing on, to a desktop PC to complete or download an application form. Some schools are still asking teachers to print and post forms!”

Howells advises no more than six questions per application form. “A form with 30 questions will have half as many applicants as one with six,” he says. Once the applications are in and the shortlist selected, the information available on the teacher interview day also has a major bearing.

Fenton says: “Teaching in an independent school is about being part of a community, not just about doing a job. The teacher interview day is the chance for schools to help candidates to make an informed decision about whether or not the post on offer is right for them.

“I find the factors that matter most to them are the ethos and pastoral care, availability of means-tested bursaries for social mobility, community links, excellent student behaviour and academic standards, as well as professional development and career progression, supportive senior leaders and line managers, and opportunities to be involved in extra-curricular activities and staff social programmes. Teachers near the start of their careers are also especially interested in reduced teaching timetables, mentoring and their development programmes.”

UK teacher recruitment
The average teacher looks for a new job every four to five years

Retaining teachers

ETeach estimates that the average teacher looks for a new job every four to five years, however, most of us can name a teacher who has started and ended his or her career at just one school. Undoubtedly, introducing new talent is vital to keeping the classroom and the staff room fresh, but most schools are keen to hang on to the good teachers it already has, so the NEU’s advice is to look after them.

Morris says: “Schools really do need to ensure that pay keeps pace with inflation. Current proposals to withdraw from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme are a ticking time bomb – in the NEU’s 2011 Independent Sector Pay & Conditions Survey, 50% of respondents stated that they wouldn’t work in a school that didn’t offer the TPS.”

ETeach estimates that the average teacher looks for a new job every four to five years, however, most of us can name a teacher who has started and ended his or her career at just one school

Workload is a reason oft-cited in the teacher exit interview, so schools would do well to monitor that too, says Fenton: “Term-time is a very intense period for all teachers so it is important to keep a close eye on workload, but teachers enjoy seeing their jobs evolve so that their roles in and beyond the classroom can grow. Promotions to take on leadership or additional responsibilities also make a big difference.”

Work-life balance is a factor too, with more and more schools offering flexible working and job shares as a matter of course. 

“The biggest untapped reserve is staff returning from parental leave or when children start school,” says Morris. “They need flexible working patterns and help to get back into the classroom.”

Inevitably though, most teachers will want to wander at some stage. Fenton concludes: “We shouldn’t be too worried about some teachers moving on each year. It’s important to retain good teachers of course, but all schools and pupils benefit from new teachers joining a school, bringing with them fresh ideas and a different perspective.”

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